If your best friend is a cat named Stella and you’re a crime reporter who’s looking for love…anything can happen.

Chapter One

I slowly opened my eyes.   A little sliver of light was trying to peek through the edge of the shade covering the window in my bedroom that over looked my back yard.  Normally, it was a pleasant light, but this morning it hurt my eyes,  so I quickly closed them again.

A few vivid images of a more than slightly out of control young woman dancing with abandon at Doyle’s last night flashed through my mind like a movie trailer…yeah, that was me.  I winced…a bad movie trailer.

I remember pulling out the little notebook I always carried and then writing down  my observations on all the drunken people around me.

They were dancing and drinking and…being mostly drunk myself…not knowing how pretentious I appeared and in fact…was.

But last night I did not care one straw.

I wondered what nonsense I had thought was so wildly insightful the night before when 4 (maybe more?) whiskey sours had given me such a false sense of importance.  Whatever it was it would be in my notebook.

I carefully and slowly turned my head on my pillow.  Lately I had had too many mornings like this one to know how painful a quick turning of the head could be.

I was…unfortunately…becoming very learned in the art of drinking…

And there it was…lying on my bedside table where I had thrown it last night.

Chapter Two

I had read someplace or perhaps been told by one of my  journalism professors that if you plan on writing “The Great American Novel”…which incidentally, I actually did…you should always carry a notebook or some other kind of recording device with you at all times in order to remember anything you may find memorable.

However…for the past year… weekend mornings had not proven to be very productive… or perhaps just not memorable.

Sometimes I was lucky to just be able to read the scrawls that I had “so importantly” jotted down the night before.  I picked my notebook up and blinked a couple of times to clear my vision.

My little notebook was not the standard reporter’s notebook that I always carried to work each day…stuffed into my messenger bag.

That size notebook would be too bulky to carry into bars or restaurants plus it would attract a lot of attention.

My “little notebook” was small enough to fit into any of my handbags or even the back pocket of my jeans.

These days I almost always just wore jeans and a tee shirt.   The color varied…black or white.  In the winter I added a blazer or jacket.  If I had a meeting…which was rare… I added a scarf.

It was pretty basic…some might even say boring…but it worked for me.

I flipped the notebook open and placed it in front of my half-opened eyes.  Squinting a little, I saw that I had only managed to scrawl on two pages and neither page had any of my trademark exclamation marks…well, well…

Two pages were hardly worth the effort it would take right now to decipher.  I was pretty sure it was just junk anyway…

I had been in a junk mood yesterday.

Chapter Three

It had been the one year anniversary of my mother’s death.  She had been killed instantly by a teenage girl texting a friend.

The girl blew a stop sign going 45 miles an hour and never even braked.  My beloved mom was only 53.

She had been walking home from Peterson’s Java Cup with a medium latte in one hand and the latest copy of US magazine in the other.

The driver’s text said, “I know I’m late will hurry.”

That one short sentence…which wasn’t even a proper sentence…killed my mother instantly.  Gone forever…my ‘mommy’, my teacher and my ‘forever always’ best friend.

That stupid text changed my life in way too many ways.

And so last night…in an ironic tribute to my mother who never drank…I had had too many whiskey sours.   Four?  Maybe 6.  Too many for sure…

Even Doyle’s new bouncer was giving me looks and the bouncers at Doyle’s never give me looks.  I’m the good one.

I seem to recall tossing out some drunken words of philosophy before faithful friend Hannah…ever so gently…pulled me toward the back door exit.  I don’t know…

I actually can’t remember.  But it seems like something I would have done last night.  Crap night.  Junk night.

Do I even remember his name?  I think I met him…

Chapter Four

Head clearing slightly…yes, of course, I knew him…but nope…couldn’t remember his name…but Hannah would.

Having just exited a crummy one-year marriage, she had become superbly single and made it a point to get to know all drop-dead, good looking single men.

Dearest Hannah…excellent co-worker and fellow enthusiastic bar attendee.

She always made it a point to become friendly with the bouncers.  Occasionally…not often…but occasionally…Hannah could get a “little carried away”.

That was when the bar’s ‘friendly force’ was good to know…and if that ‘force’ happened to be handsome and single…it was a plus for Hannah.

Doyle’s new bouncer certainly fell into that category.  He was tall and no stranger to the gym.  He had dark, golden brown skin and intense brown eyes.  There was a small scar on his right cheek.  He also wore no wedding ring which, of course, made Hannah very happy.

But as good-looking as he was, he always looked so serious.  Come to think of it, I had never actually seen him flat-out smile.

I had seen him frown though…even look angry…at me…like last night.  Sigh.  Crap night.

It was about a month ago that he had shown up at Doyle’s.  Hannah always asked the new bouncers to dance…and so after a couple of weeks…she had approached him.

Very few men refused the beautiful Hannah…and yet…

“Bouncers aren’t allowed to dance at Doyle’s,” he politely explained to her.  And that was a complete lie.

Most of them did dance at the beginning of the night.  I think it was just to get the feel of the crowd and to blend in a little.

Then a little later…just for fun and because Hannah dared me…I also asked him to dance.  He had paused for a couple of seconds and I thought he was going to say yes…

But then he said “No.”  And he just walked away.  No polite lie to me.  Nothing.

Maybe it had something to do with my spotting him a couple of days earlier at the Minneapolis Court House where I was doing some follow-up on a story for the newspaper where both Hannah and I worked.

He looked really disheveled and was surrounded by 3 or 4 Minneapolis policemen.  They were all talking and then he looked over and saw me standing there.

I was about to smile that ‘friendly little smile you give people when you don’t really know them all that well…but you don’t want to be rude and ignore them  smile’…you know what I mean?

Then…all of a sudden they put hand cuffs on him and led him into the jail part of the Court House.

I quickly looked away.  But he had seen me.

 

Chapter Five

I wondered  if being a bouncer was a good job for someone with a criminal record.  Maybe Doyle’s doesn’t know.  Maybe they don’t care as long as unruly customers are efficiently hustled quickly and quietly out the door.

No one likes to go to a club where troublesome patrons are not controlled.  One thing I did know for sure…the bouncers didn’t last very long at Doyle’s.

Just so you know…aside from last night…bouncers for the most part do not need to keep an “eye” on me.  However…my dear, sweet, friend Hannah was another story.

She was your “typical happy drinker”.  And sometimes after her 3rd or 4th margarita she became everyone’s best friend…whether they wanted a new best friend or not.

And that is when a friendly bouncer would come over to help…since at this point Hannah would refuse to listen to me when I suggested it may be time to leave.

However, an understanding and sympathetic bouncer gently guiding her out the door worked every time.  They all knew Hannah and loved her.  Everyone loved the beautiful and charming Hannah.

They all liked me…I was the good friend and for the bouncers who were single, I was their link to Hannah and possibly her phone number.  I was not above being bribed.

So on many weekend nights…the last thing Hannah heard was “That’s it Karla, time for you to go home.”

Chapter Six

Don’t worry.  I haven’t lost my mind.  I know you’re probably thinking, “I thought we were talking about someone named Hannah.”  And you’re right…we are.

The names Karla and Hannah refer to the same person.  Also.  I am called “Teddy” when in fact…my real name is…Charlie.  Let me explain.

Hannah and I are both reporters at the Minneapolis Journal.  Currently, we are assigned to cover the  crime beat in  Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs.  Once in a great while we get a by-line for writing an extraordinary story.

In the past couple of years,  both of us have had a few sketchy encounters with readers of the Journal who were pretty angry or upset with the way we had covered a story or…believe it or not…with the general philosophy of the Journal.

These encounters had always taken place in a “bar-like” setting and in all times the ‘upset’ people had downed a few too many ‘bottles of beer’…or whatever…

So last year, my long-time, very good friend Abby,…who is quite absolutely brilliant and devious came up with the idea of what she cleverly called a “protective cloak of anonymity” for Hannah and me…to be used at our discretion.

We both still worked for the Journal but…

“Karla” (Hannah) worked in circulation and “Teddy” (Charlie…me) worked in accounting.  Throw on a title of “Assistant Manager” to these jobs and BINGO…two very boring jobs that did not encourage any further questions other than an occasional complaint to “Karla” about a late delivery.  IKR…

So if “Karla” was asked to leave Doyle’s after one or two more margaritas than was prudent…she would do so…gliding peacefully out the door, into the night and down the block to the Minnehaha Grill.

It was our go-to late night restaurant on the weekends.  Black coffee, pancakes, eggs and bacon…with an occasional side order of hash browns…was our standard order.

And so that is where we had gone last night…because we both knew how bad I would feel the next morning if we did not.

We pretty much had the drinking/partying ritual down to a science.  I know what you’re thinking…not good at all…and…maybe you’re right.

But…regardless…last night was rubbish.

Chapter Seven

I sighed and flipped the notebook back on the night stand.

“I miss you mom,” I whispered.   I closed my eyes but not quite fast enough to stop hot tears from running down my cheeks.  I reached over to grab a Kleenex.  When would this horrible pain go away?

Last year…after a couple of halfhearted attempts…I had finally decided to get my own place.

I had lived at home while I was going to the University of Minnesota in order to save money…and since my mom and I were such good friends…living with her was a pleasure and just pure joy.

But I knew that after I had been working for a while that it was time to get my own house…and…it would be a smart investment for me.

We had had so much fun looking around for places in the Hawthorne area of Minneapolis…the neighborhood where I lived now…where in fact I had been born.

I wanted to get a house close by so I would be able to walk to the same shops and favorite restaurants that I did now…or even walk to mom’s house if I wanted.  Why venture too far away from the nest, right?

But then she had been senselessly killed and my life had been shattered.

I simply could not move.  Dad had died when I was 7 and even though I had only vague memories of him, they were all connected to this house.

I saw a man raking leaves or shoveling snow or walking up the back steps.   But then that  quick puff of memory would float away.

My mom had been a passionate gardener and the yard and boulevard were filled with trees, bushes and flowers that she had raised from little sprouts…just like me.

No.  I wasn’t moving…not for a long time.  Maybe not ever…

Chapter Eight

So…let me properly introduce my best friend Abby…last name Jones…who has been my best friend since kindergarten.

Abby decided (and there would be absolutely no argument) that it was not a good idea for me to be living alone in this big house.

So…she told her mom and dad that it was time for her to leave the family nest.  And she did.

She moved three doors down the block to my second bedroom…the one that overlooks the front yard…and an amazing crab apple tree.

Abby Jones.  Everyone should be so lucky to have a friend like Abby…

One day in fourth grade…during recess…two really mean girls pushed me down into a pile of dirty snow.  My brand-new, beautiful, red winter coat was ruined; stained with salt and wet sludge from the street.

Now when you’re in 3rd grade, you just don’t go crying to the teacher if someone pushes you down.  Right?  Right.  So I told my mom (who most certainly would have gone to see the teacher) that I had slipped on some ice and fallen.

But Abby Jones was my very best friend and she wasn’t just mad at those bullies.  She was fuming.

A couple of days later, she somehow managed to get those two girls alone in the bathroom before school began.  I was the “look-out”…standing just inside the door so I wouldn’t attract attention.

I’m not exactly sure what she said…I couldn’t hear everything…she was talking very quietly.

But I heard the words “mob”, “not really Jones”, “call in a favor”, “not very pretty” and “you’ll be sorry”.

I looked back over my shoulder and the two girls were standing there with their mouths hanging open.  Abby was a pretty awesome storyteller…she watched a lot of TV.

Then she did the classic “I’ll be watching you” bit and put two fingers to her eyes and then pointed them back at the girls…who were frozen in place.

Then…to my horror…I looked closer and saw that Abby had her father’s antique “Wild West” six shooter pistol strapped to her waist under her jacket.  I had seen it hanging on the wall in their den for years…next to an autographed photo of John Wayne.

She pulled the gun out of its holster and did the classic gunslinger twirl…and a real bullet fell out and bounced on the floor.  After one second…both girls threw up.  Hell…I almost threw up.

Abby calmly bent down, picked up the errant bullet, turned on her little Mary Jane patent leather shoes, grabbed my arm and we walked out into the hall just as the bell rang for classes to begin.

“I thought it was empty!” she whispered in my ear…while  grinning from ear to ear.

Introduction of best friend Abby Jones…complete.

Chapter Nine

No one…told anyone…anything…ever.  And I never had any more bullying problems and neither did my little “connected” friend Abby.

What a memory to have with a record hangover. ..but I did smile.  I always smiled when I remembered that story.

I started to roll over.  My head felt too heavy for my neck.  What time was it?  I knew it was Saturday.  Thank God I had it off this week.

But…if I had had to go into work…I would have gone into work.  That’s how it is when you work for a daily newspaper. 

You.  Go.  To.  Work.  Among all the changes in the newspaper business…that’s the one thing that has never changed…unless you could send in your stories digitally from home…but neither Hannah nor I had achieved that status…yet.  We would need a couple more years of seniority before we had that luxury…and privilege.

Right now we had desks and cubes and a computer.   Our editor expected to see us sitting there… at our desks…unless we weren’t out on assignment.

Just like old school…without, of course, the free-wheeling lifestyle enjoyed by most  newspaper reporters of the 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s.

Back then…when newspaper ink really ran in your veins…there were always 2 or 3 bars within walking distance of every newspaper, in every U.S. city…big or small.

The success of those bars depended on how much the reporters and…let’s be totally honest here… pretty much everyone else who worked at the newspaper drank.   

And…to be honest…everyone drank a lot back then.

A Bloody Mary and a cinnamon roll for that morning coffee break?  Of course.  Martinis at lunch?  Why not.  A couple of beers before heading home?  I am surprised you’re even asking…

The office Christmas parties were legend and mostly banned in the mid-sixties.  Actually banned…I wish I could have gone to at least one.  I heard they were outrageous…and great fun!  

Now…to celebrate the Holidays…we get a complimentary (alcohol free) luncheon buffet…and maybe a candy cane.

Chapter Ten

I didn’t sit up.  I wasn’t yet sure how my stomach would react to any movement…and I didn’t want to clean up last night’s “after-drinking, food frenzy”.

I’m pretty sure I liked it the first time and didn’t want to spoil the memory…

Hannah and I almost always closed the bars.  We never left while there was still loud music slamming against the walls and bouncing around our ears…we were “dancing fools”.

We didn’t want to miss a second of the night.  We both worked hard and right now we saw no reason not to play as hard as we worked.

We had both started working for the Journal at the same time…about two years ago.  Hannah had worked for the St. Paul Gazette for almost a year but left after hearing too many rumors that it was folding…it did.

The ink on my journalism degree was still a little wet as I sat down for an interview with the City Editor of the Journal.

Every week the newspaper held a mandatory orientation/tour meeting for all new newspaper employees before they actually starting working.

Hannah and I found ourselves sitting next to each other and as we waiting…began talking about our ‘nail polish art’.  She had little yellow ducks painted on her nails and I had shooting stars painted on mine…we clicked instantly..

Afterward, we both agreed that even though it was only 2:00 in the afternoon, greasy hamburgers and cold beers at The Little Pony, a favorite ‘reporter hang-out’ across the street from the newspaper, sounded like a great idea.  A friendship was born.

Hannah had been married for only a few months when she realized that “oh so foolish” husband Harry was having too much fun on the road as a clothing rep for Nike.  Marriage done and done.

She didn’t believe in second chances and when you saw Hannah…you totally understood why.

She was beautiful inside and out…from head to toe.  Men actually stopped talking when she walked by them.  She was sweet, friendly, bat-shit smart and shared the title of “best friend” with my new house-mate, Abby…who was now yelling at me from the living room.

“Charlie!!  Are you awake yet??  Her voice…even from far away…made my brain hurt.

“I’m going over to Jack’s for some cinnamon rolls…and other stuff….”  Abby’s voice was way too cheery for me this morning…not to mention way too loud.

“I’m up,” I whispered loudly toward my open bedroom door and then I hear the front door slam.  Ouch.

Chapter Eleven

My head hurt so much!  I carefully rolled over again, making the first move in the sitting up process.

A rough, wet tongue licked my chin…twice…I focused my half-opened eyes on two golden ones staring at me…

Stella, my mostly black tabby cat was up as well…up and sitting so close to my face that I could smell her fishy little breath. 

Apparently someone had already had breakfast this morning.

Stella was a little over a  year old.  After mom had died and before Abby had moved in, the house felt really empty.  So…I took the advice of my well-meaning friends and went to the animal shelter to get a rescue dog…no $1,500 A. K. C. pedigreed pup for me.

I had great plans for that dog and me.  We would take brisk walks every morning.  I would eat a healthy breakfast…no more McDonald’s  breakfast bombs scarfed down on my way to work. I had a plan.

“Fido” (my as yet unnamed dog) and I would run miles together.  Maybe I would even train to become a marathoner…I liked to run…

…Well…I used to like to run when I was a kid.  I had BIG plans for that dog.  It would become my best furry friend!

So last year on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, I went to the Minneapolis Animal Humane Society. 

It was a very busy place.  A lot of parents were having second thoughts about their decision to buy their kids a pet for Christmas.

I guess sometimes…when two people work…it’s hard to raise a loving and well-behaved pet and keep it from destroying the gorgeous house that only two incomes could afford.

The end result for them was a trip to the Humane Society.  Their loss…my gain..

So.  It was busy and I had to wait.  The incoming/receiving area was packed, so the adoption people were helping them out.  I was okay with that.

I found a chair and began day dreaming of Spring and me and my furry friend walking around Lake Nokomis together…watching the morning mist rise up off the lake…

No matter how I begged, I could never persuade either Abby or Hannah to walk with me on a regular basis.  I hated walking alone.  Someone was always trying to talk to me.

Chapter Twelve

An older man sat down next to me and placed a pet carrier between us.  We smiled and nodded at each other…Minnesota nice at work.

He looked old enough to be retired but these days you couldn’t really tell.  Half the bag boys at Sherman’s grocery store looked older than him…

“Are you getting or leaving?” he asked me.

His question at first confused me but then I realized what he meant.

“Oh…I’m getting!” I responded with a grin.  “I’m getting a puppy!”

He nodded his head slowly and then put his hand on top of the carrier and patted it a couple of times.

“I’m leaving.”  He spoke very quietly, almost a whisper as though he didn’t want the animal inside the carrier to hear him…if indeed it could.

“Ah.”  I said and looked down at the carrier to see if I could see any movement through the slots.  I could not.  So, I just smiled at the man again and then looked straight ahead.  So did he.

I suppose I should have asked a question or two.  I am a reporter after all.  But this did not seem like the right time to question an elderly man who was either dropping off a sick animal he could no longer care for…or worse…a dead one.

Instead I just closed my eyes and waited patiently for my number to be called…

“NUMBER 44!”  My eyes shot open.  That was me!

I got up and hurried over to the desk. The girl looked over my shoulder and said, “You forgot your carrier, miss.”

I turned around and there was the carrier still sitting on the bench…but the man who owned it was nowhere to be seen.

He must have gone to the bathroom, I thought.  I told the girl that the carrier wasn’t mine.  I was here to adopt a puppy.

She shrugged.  “Oh…okay.  You can fill out these papers and then come back up here.  You won’t have to wait again.”

“When do I get to see the puppies?” I asked eagerly.

“After you fill out all the forms, miss.  45! Number 45!,” she called and smiled at the next person coming up to the desk.

I thanked her and as I walked back to my seat, I glanced at my watch.  I had been sitting there for almost an hour!  No wonder the old guy had to go to the bathroom.

I sat down and began to fill out the adoption eligibility forms.  Holy Mackerel, there must have been over 10 pages!  I stopped whining and began reading, writing and signing.

By page five…the owner of the carrier had still not returned.  I looked around and then I bent over the carrier to look in one of the little openings.  I saw a very yellow eye looking right back at me.  It blinked.

It actually startled me and I may have said, “fuck”.  Okay, I did say “fuck”…but very quietly.

Then I said in a very low…almost apologetic voice to the little, yellow eye,  “I’m sorry.  You surprised me.  I’m just glad you’re not dead.”

Me too,” said a teeny, little voice.

Chapter Thirteen

OMG!  THIS IS A STORY ABOUT A TALKING ANIMAL!…

Nope.   The voice was my voice and I can assure you that I am not crazy.

I just have this nutty habit of giving a voice to objects that could not otherwise speak…if I did not do it for them.  I mostly do this for animals.  I do not speak for the refrigerator.

When I was a little girl, every one of my dolls or stuffed animals had a separate personality and a different voice. 

My mom started this crazy thing after I had been sick for a couple of weeks (for the fourth or fifth time that winter) and the whole staying in bed thing was getting really old…for her as well as me.

She was always trying to find different ways to make me feel better…and this definitely qualified.

One gloomy, winter day she came into my bedroom and sat on the edge of my bed.  She pulled one of my brother’s white socks out of her apron pocket and put it over her hand. 

And then…she made it talk to me. It was a puppet with no eyes, no mouth, no ears no hair.  Just a white sock.  Over her hand.  And…I loved it.

The sock’s name was “Tudy” as in “Judy” and she lived next door to us.  She was constantly getting into trouble and hardly ever went to school…which is why she was always there when I was sick.

Both me and my mom would talk to her and Tudy talked back to us.  She was a polite little girl but in trouble a lot… for one reason or another…and because of that she always had quite a tale to tell.

That was the start of me talking for inanimate objects…mostly animals.

It drives Abby nuts.  So of course I do it whenever and wherever I can.  Hannah could care less…as you might expect from the care-free Hannah.

So…here I am…the day before Valentine’s Day…”talking to” and “answering back for” some kind of animal in a carrier at the Minneapolis Animal Humane Society. 

But doing so…very, very softly.

I looked around to see if anyone was watching and then I bent down to the carrier.

“Where is your owner?”  I whispered to the carrier.  I figured a soft, pleasant voice would make it feel better so I tried to speak softly and pleasantly. I am such a nice, normal person…not crazy at all.

Gone.”

Chapter Fourteen

I put the forms down and knelt in front of the carrier and peered inside. 

I couldn’t see very much…a small black shape…that wasn’t moving. I bravely and…of course…foolishly…stuck  my forefinger into one of the narrow openings.  Hoping to appear friendly, I wiggled it a bit.

I was also hoping that whatever animal was in the carrier… was not rabid.

One little lick on my finger.  The tongue was small and rough, so I guessed it might be a cat…having been licked by a cat before. 

It was probably not a lizard.  I was pretty sure it was not a lizard…but then…I have never been licked by a lizard before…

I got up from kneeling, picked up my papers and sat back down on the bench.  I had to finish the application but now my reporter instincts were starting to kick in.  Who?  What?  Where?  When?

I put my application down on the other side of me and looked around the carrier for a lock or a catch.  There was one in the front but I didn’t want to completely open the carrier.

Images of children screaming in terror and parents loudly swearing…at me… floated briefly before me as I envisioned an “unknown” animal running wildly around the room. 

No.  That would not be good…not good at all.

But there was a zipper on the top and I unzipped it just a tiny bit…only a couple of inches.

Quicker than a wink, a small, black cat’s head poked out and meowed.

It looked right at me and smiled.  I swear to God.  Honest. It looked just like a smile. 

I smiled back and patted the head with my finger.  This was just a teeny kitten!

“Are you dying?” I whispered to the kitten.

“You better not be because I am not up to dying animals right now.  I am done with dying.”

I looked intently at two, little  yellow eyes.  They looked right back at me.

“What do you think?”

“I think you look pretty good!”  I said in a very cheerful voice.

I had absolutely no idea at all.

 

Chapter 15

I spotted an envelope lying on the bench on the other side of the carrier.  I reached for it and opened it without even thinking once…much less twice

Hey…I was in this…whatever this was. The note read:

“Her name is Stella.  I adopted her from this place two weeks ago.  She is about two months old.

“I did not know I  was severely allergic to cat hair until after I got her home.  I think she’s pretty smart.  She has been to a vet and she is completely healthy and has had all her shots.

“She is already litter box trained and she is very loving.  I am truly sorry.  And I am very sad.  Please give her back for me.  It’s just too hard for me to do.  Thank you for your trouble.”

And there were two brand-new $100 bills inside the envelope.

“HOLY CRAP!” I exclaimed…rather loudly, I’m afraid…and looked at Stella…who was now looking at me…

“What?  What?  Am I dying?” asked Stella, ever so quietly.

“No, you’re fine,” I told her.  “Let me read this again.”  I patted her head a couple of times as I re-read the note.

This must have been his plan all along.  Come to the shelter on a Saturday when they’re busy and just leave the carrier with the note next to someone who looks like a helpful person.

People have always told me I looked very helpful…

Well.  Now I had a situation here… 

One thing I was pretty sure of…this kitten would never want to jog with me around Lake Nokomis every morning…or, let’s be honest…ever.

But…I was also pretty sure that this kitten, now officially named “Stella”, was not going to be brought up to the desk and returned.

I looked around and everyone was busy doing their own thing…mostly filling out forms. 

Even my previous loud exclamation of surprise had not jolted them.  Perfect.  I too…will do my own thing.

I gently pushed Stella’s little head back into the carrier, zipped it closed, tucked the note and the money in my purse and picked up the carrier and headed for the exit…tossing the unfinished application in the trash bin by the door.

Well…I thought.  That was easy.  I didn’t even have to sign any papers  Plus, I vaguely remember reading somewhere that having a cat for a pet was much easier than having a dog.

“Welcome to my life, Stella.”  I said happily and pushed open the door.

“I think I’m cold.” said Stella.  “And really, really hungry.”

Chapter Sixteen

And…that was how Stella became part of my life.  And…not so incidentally…how I was able to get a haircut, a manicure and a pedicure that week instead of having to wait until next month’s paycheck.  I also gave $20 to the Minneapolis Humane Society.  I am such a nice person.

Stella licked my chin again.

“Hello my furry little friend.  I have a very bad headache this morning.”

“I waited up till ALL hours…maybe even till 9:30 to see if you would drag yourself home alive,” complained Stella in her very best teeny-tiny complaining voice.

“9:30!!!  Wow!!!  When you consider I left here at 8:30 to meet Hannah, it seems to me that you didn’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about me.”

“It was quality time.”

Even though I had turned my cell phone to vibrate-only, I could now hear it moving on my nightstand.

I looked at Stella who was still about one inch from my face.

She purred and then licked me again.  Love?  Maybe… or maybe leftover egg I missed with the wash cloth last night.

“Moving…”  I said to Stella.  And then carefully rose up on one elbow and grabbed my phone.

It was Abby.  What was wrong now?

“Why are you calling me?  Didn’t you just leave?  Is your battery dead?  Did you have an accident?”  I quickly shot questions at her…not waiting for an answer that I was sure I wouldn’t like.  I ended with a terse, “What’s up?”

“I.  Am.  Fine.”  Abby said rather coldly and perhaps a bit too loudly for my tender state this morning.

“They only have one chocolate filled eclair left…which I know is your favorite but since I am the one who has ventured out on this freezing day, I am getting it for me..since it is my favorite also  What do you want?  They are also completely out of cinnamon rolls.”

“Fine…” I groaned…I was really looking forward to a cinnamon roll.

“You can get me a caramel roll with cream cheese frosting…and some of those mini donuts.”

I thanked her profusely and switched my phone completely off and then tossed it to the bottom of my bed.

“Was that Abby?”  Stella questioned…her little black nose now up in the air as if searching for some faraway scent of goodness.  “Caramel rolls?  I just LOVE Abby!”

She jumped down and swished her way out of my very cozy bedroom, heading down the hall and into the bathroom.  Soon I heard the scratching of litter.

Stella was beginning her day.  It was time for me to do so as well.  Perhaps.  We’ll see how it goes.

Chapter Seventeen

I sat up completely and put my feet on the wooden floor…it was not freezing cold.  To my delight…Abby had remembered to turn the heat up this morning.

You would think that after living in the frigid state of Minnesota for her entire life, Abby would naturally and even unconsciously realize the importance of heat when the outside temperature is struggling to reach -15 below zero…which was the forecast high for today.  But…you would be thinking incorrectly.

Abby…like me…had spent her entire life…living in the comfort and security of her parent’s house and was not accustomed to the inner-workings of a wildly complicated heating/cooling system…as in…turn the heat on when it is cold and turn the air conditioning on when it is hot.

But…I digress…today the floor was toasty warm and therefore…I was happy.

I stood up.  So far so good.  I turned slowly and glanced at myself in my full-length mirror.  I had hung that mirror when I…surprise, surprise… realized at age 12 I didn’t want to look like a boy any more.

Stella wandered back from the bathroom and sat down next to me.  She also looked at the mirror.

“Even with the waviness of this cheap mirror, I don’t look too bad for a completely hungover 24-year-old,” I said optimistically.

Stella…with her head cocked to the side…seemed to be appraising me.

I smiled down at her, looked back at my reflection and then fluffed my short, brown hair, pulled my little side-burns in front of my just a bit too large ears and patted down my always errant bangs which would never…even in the best of circumstances…lay straight.

I patted my cheeks to add some natural color and looked a little closer at the mirror.  Bloodshot eyes.  For sure…sigh.

“Well, Stella…not completely horrible.  But, I do think I should buy a new mirror.”

“Doesn’t drinking alcohol age a person?”

 

Chapter Eighteen

And with that little caustic comment on my lifestyle, Stella was out the bedroom door, gone in search of breakfast #2 or possibly #3.

Abby was in charge of Stella’s meals.  I was in charge of the “result” of Stella’s meals.

Abby often forgot if she fed Stella so she would just feed her again and quite amazingly…Stella continued to look like a teeny 6-month old kitten.

Let it be noted I would kill for that kind of metabolism…

“Only dogs will eat more than they should,” Abby informed me one day as I commented on her opening a second can of Mighty Mouse cat food for Stella’s morning meal.  “Cats know better and will space their food out.”

Stella spaced her food out all right…as much as she could get…whenever she could get it.

Since I had the day off, I had no firm plans except to try to recover from last night…and maybe think about where Hannah and I would go tonight.

That was actually a no-brainer.  We always went to Doyle’s on Saturday night.    Saturday night was “amateur night”.

For the first hour they encouraged and welcomed members of the early bird audience to come up on stage and sing with the band.

They gave you the words and let you sing your little heart out.

This was the real deal.  They even gave you a live mike…hoping like hell you had a somewhat decent voice.

Every Saturday night…Hannah faithfully put her name in the wicker basket that the band placed on the stage.

Hopeful participants would put their names in and wait…full of excitement.. to be chosen.

Hannah had yet to be chosen…going on two years now…

Personally…I thought it was fixed.  I had heard Hannah sing…and so had members of the band at a private, after-hours  Christmas party a couple of years ago.

I had never…in my whole life…heard “Jingle Bells” sung so completely out of tune as I had that night.

“I don’t understand,” she would whine…week after week.  “Who has this much bad luck?

“I know! I know!”  I was always very sympathetic.  “Maybe next week.”   And I would pat her shoulder…just like I did every week.

“I should just give up…” Hannah would say every week…voice dripping with disappointment…

“Really?” I would carefully ask..

And then…because I loved Hannah so much…I would also always say…

“You know…you have such a…pretty voice…”

…which is why Hannah would be putting her name in the basket tonight.

.

Chapter Nineteen

For some reason (insert Stella The Cat here) my pillow ends up on the floor almost every morning.  I bent down to grab it and my head started to seriously pound.

I quickly sat back down on my bed.  The room was not exactly doing the infamous “drunk spin”…but I definitely felt better sitting down.  Crap.  I am such an idiot.

I tried to remember…did I take 2 aspirin before I went to sleep last night?  Because if I did…I should not have such a bad headache.

This was a classic hangover prevention trick that one of the older reporters had shared with me and Hannah  one morning when we were both miserable from a night of partying.  He swore by it and it actually worked…when I remembered to take the damn pills.

“Maybe I have the flu…Jeez Louise… who hopes for the flu?”  I muttered to myself.

“You are so pathetic,” Stella said as she jumped up on my bed.  “The flu.  Indeed.”

“You could be more sympathetic,” I challenged her.  “I take such good care of you.  You are one of my very best friends.”

“One of…?  Well, that’s nice.  I love…being qualified.”

I patted the little bit of golden hair on Stella’s head and then turned to look at my new hair cut in the mirror.

Back in the 60’s there was a geometric hair style called a “Sassoon” named after Vidal Sassoon, the stylist who had created it.  The cut sported very short hair with sharp V sideburns and 2 deep V’s cut in the back.

It was really radical back then so of course every one had loved it. 

And…apparently it was coming back in style..or so said Seth…my favorite stylist.

He has been cutting my hair for about 4 years, and he was not taking no for an answer.  Seth said I had perfect  “little sticky-out ears” that would look so awesome with this new cut.

“You’re gonna look just like Anne Hathaway…” he ventured…

“Whatever….”  I agreed…you just can’t argue with Seth…and Anna Hathaway looked pretty good.

Seth was adorable and very persuasive.  I loved him dearly.  It was too bad he played for the same team.

I heard the back screen door bang and almost felt the blast of freezing air that came rushing  in as Abby pushed open the inside door.

“I have breakfast!” Abby shouted from the kitchen.

Stella’s ears shot straight up at the word “breakfast” and she jumped off the bed and raced through my bedroom door.

“You just ate!  You’re going to get so fat!”  I hollered after her.

“Not me, kiddo…” she shot back…as she raced down the hallway at warp speed…sliding thru the doorway that led into the dining room…and then…

“Abby!!!!  I’ve been waiting so long for you to come back!!!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake”  said Abby.  “Stop talking to me!!”

I chuckled…even though it hurt…and knew it was time to get moving.

Chapter Twenty

My house was built in the late 1940’s in the south Minneapolis Corcoran neighborhood.  It was super old but mom had always made necessary renovations.

Abby and I had both walked to school and back…everyday single day…from those first scary days in kindergarten to graduation from Hamilton High School.

It was a great neighborhood with lots of little shops and restaurants that somehow had not been swept away by a minor gentrification program a few years ago.

On the corner of the block where I lived was the little flower shop that Abby’s parents owned and operated…soon to be solely run by Abby when her folks headed to Florida and a well-deserved retirement.

We even had a small movie theater…the original one built in the 1950’s…still showing first run movies…just two blocks away.

Mom and dad had bought the house when they were first married.  Then they had me and never moved…I didn’t see myself moving for quite a while either.

Abby was a fantastic house mate…and I dreaded the day that she would move out.

Ralph Cooper and Abby Jones had been dating since 9th grade.  He was now a fledgling lawyer and currently working day and night to pay off college loans.  I’m thinking marriage is about 2 years away.

My front door opened into a 4-season porch and if you turn right and open another door you are in the living room..which led into the dining room with a swinging door (that I will never replace) that allowed access to the kitchen.

There is an eating nook in the kitchen that over looks the back yard.  It’s a style that people are again finding desirable.  I personally think the “open concept” is wearing thin.

Two bedrooms and a bath run parallel to the living room/dining room area…separated  by a long hallway.

Upstairs there are two large rooms and a full bath…with a space for an outside entrance.  I used to play up there when I was a kid.  It was like having my own little apartment.

I thought…hint, hint to Abby and Ralph…it was a perfect place for a young married couple to live as they saved for  buying  their own home.

I very slowly stood again, took a couple of steps and decided the day was starting to look a little brighter.

I slipped on my favorite fuzzy bathrobe.  It was like putting on a cashmere blanket.  I had paid a fortune for it but it was worth it.  I stuffed my feet into slippers and headed to the kitchen in hopes that Abby had left me some coffee.

After a quick trip to the bathroom I headed towards the kitchen.  Then I remembered I had forgotten my little notebook.  I turned and trudged back into my bedroom, picked it up and shoved it in my pocket.

It had become a ritual for me to share with Abby any notes I had taken during my week end,  bar hopping adventures.  That way she could vicariously enjoy “clubbing”  thru my single state while still being faithful and loyal to her beloved  fiance, Ralph.

With a little bit of luck, the jottings of the night before weren’t too insane…I just hoped I could actually read them.

I walked into the kitchen and the wondrous aroma of freshly brewed coffee gave me reason to live yet another day…

Chapter Twenty-One

Abby was standing at our breakfast nook table, unpacking two white bags from Jacks.  They were filled to the top with wonderfully smelling goodies.

Stella was already sitting…and patiently waiting…at her special eating spot on the table.

There was a squirrel racing along the railing of our back porch but right now Stella could care less.  Food was too near her little nose and mouth.

When not eating, Stella would sit nearer the back of the table so she could look out at the squirrels running around the three oak trees that my dad had planted the first year he and my mom had bought the house.

She even has a little cat-bed there…in case she needs a little nap…between meals.

It was kind of cute the way Stella’s tongue would hang out when she was about to eat something really special…like breakfast…or lunch…or dinner…or whenever.

“I just love you so much Abby,” Stella moaned.

“Honestly, Charlie, that cat seems almost human at times when you talk for her.  I could swear she was actually saying something with those meows of hers.”  Abby said.

“I know…right?”  It was odd.   For the past three or four months Stella had started to “meow” whenever I  would ‘talk’ for her.

It was kind of eerie…which is why I did it so much whenever Abby was around…it was fun to wind her up a little…

I looked over at the almost drooling Stella.  I made an attempt to push her little black tongue back into her mouth.  I wonder how rare it is to have a black cat with a black tongue…and a black nose.

“Yeah.  She’s really something…that’s for sure, ” I said.  Then I put a caramel roll on my plate and a tiny, little piece on Stella’s plate.

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  My cat has her own plate and she sits on the table in her own spot.  It just happened to start out that way when she was a kitten.

Back then it was just me and Stella and I never had the heart to move her down to her regular dishes on the floor.  Plus…it was much easier to have conversations with her if she was close at hand…

Abby sat down across from me…put a larger piece of roll on the now empty plate in front of Stella…which drew another small, seemingly delighted moan from her.

“So,” said Abby, anything catch your fancy last night?”  She pointed to the notebook I had tossed on the table.

“It was an interesting night, that’s for sure.”  I said thoughtfully.

“I think that I was part of the ‘interesting bit’ towards the end…”

“Well…let the adventure begin.”  said Abby and she took a huge bite out of her eclair.

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Older, white-haired man makes fool of himself trying to flirt with young girls.  SO SAD…”  He could be their father”

“Our oh so handsome  bouncer gently removes slightly out-of-control female drinker quietly and efficiently.  Five star to whatever his name is…”

“You aren’t talking about you or Hannah here…right?” asks a worried Abby…her coffee cup pausing halfway to her mouth.

I gave her a withering glance as I looked up from my notebook.

“Hey don’t get so huffy…I just thought I’d ask,”  Abby said with a little smile.

“Hannah can get a little too ‘joyous’…as we all know.  Please continue.”

“Two phony looking but very cute,  guys  about 21-25 enter the bar near closing, looking for a couple of mostly drunk young ladies they could quickly impress for a little action after last call.  They look over at me and Hannah and we both roll our eyes.  They move on and continue looking.”

“Bobby looks at me while he is singing a love song and then he winks at me when he’s done.  I wish he would ask me out!.” 

I hear a low groan from Abby.  She is not at all fond of Bobby, lead singer in Doyle’s house band., The Continentals.

“Jake comes over and sits down.  He takes my hand in his and is just about to ask me something when we hear a loud crash from across the room.  Trouble somewhere and he leaves.”

“He’s married, you know…Hannah and I both agree.” says Abby very pointedly.  “He is absolutely married and you are being a total fool…just saying…”

I ignore her comment completely.

“And that is almost it.”  I pause and close the notebook and take a bite of my roll and glance out at our snow-covered back yard.

It was January in Minnesota and this year we have three or four feet of snow in the backyard.  I was just about to explain the ‘almost’ part…when Abby started talking.

“I have two very important things to say,” said Abby.

“One.  Doesn’t Bobby already have a girlfriend or maybe three?  And…I agree completely with Hannah…who can spot a married man a mile away…Jake is married.”

“Well…” I argued, “Bobby is the lead singer of the band and also extremely good looking…and that means he has lots of girls…you know…like groupies…always hanging around the stage…and him”

“But…I think he really likes me.  He always goes out of his way to say ‘Hi’ when Hannah and I come to Doyle’s for their Wednesday lunch buffet.  Sometimes he even stops practice to come over to talk to us…you can ask Hannah!”

I knew I was sounding pretty lame…and pretty thirteen-oldish…but still…

Abby scoffed…and continued talking.

“And…and the second thing…Jake Marlowe …”

“Stop.”  I ordered, holding up my hand to silence her.

“I know both of you guys have my best interests at heart, blah, blah, blah.  But…just because Jake hasn’t really asked me out on a proper date and just wants to go for a drive down to the Lakes after closing means nothing.”

“I think it would be romantic.  He doesn’t get a lot of free time and I have a job too.  We could really get to know each other.”

I took another bite of my roll and looked defiantly at Abby…who countered…as I knew she would.  She was Abby Jones, after all.

“And yet…you haven’t gone with him ‘down to the lakes’.  Why?”  Abby questioned, tilting her head to the side.  She looked just like Stella.

“I’m not sure, ” I mumbled.  “But I think I will…soon.  I’m really holding out for Bobby.  I know if I go out with Jake, Bobby will never ask me out.  I don’t think they like each other much.  Plus Jake is kind of like Bobby’s boss…so there’s that.”

“But when Bobby asks me out, I’m telling him my real name and where I work!”

I paused and looked out the back window.  A bright red cardinal had landed on the porch railing and was trying to pick up a piece of bread one of the squirrels had dropped.

I turned back to look at Abby who had stood up to go to the refrigerator.

“Anyway…as I was saying before you interrupted me…just before we left Doyle’s last night, it got a little complicated.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

“Say what?  What did you just mumble Charlie?”

Abby closed the refrigerator door where she had gone to get more half & half for our coffee.

“I missed what you said.”

“I said… that’s when the night got a tad complicated.  Last night…someone said ‘Good-by Charlie’ or ‘Take it easy, Charlie’ or…something like that…I can’t remember exactly…”

“Hannah and I were starting to leave.  Then I turned and waved a huge good-by to everyone around me.”

“You know the wave.  One of those very tipsy, all encompassing waves that includes the whole room.  It was just before last call.”

“How the hell does anyone at Doyle’s know my real name, Abby?  Hannah and I have been so careful.”

Abby was still standing with the half & half container in one hand.  She sat down,  added cream to her coffee,  stirred and took a thoughtful sip.  Then she took a more thoughtful bite of her eclair.

“Describe how ‘happy’ you and Hannah were last night…on a scale of one to ten.  Ten being really, really ‘happy’ but still conscious.”

She gave me one of those piercing “I am not in the mood for BS looks” that is going to work so well for her when she has kids.  Her mom could do the same look.  It truly was a gift.

“Well…Hannah was driving, so she was a definite one.  I was a definite eight.”

“Earlier in the evening, Hannah was singing a lot…along with the band.  She really got carried away a couple of times.”

“She was trying to impress the band…prepping for tonight’s amateur night…you know Hannah…”

“Oh…I know…not that practicing will make a difference with that voice.  She is persistent though.”

Abby got up to get some tomato juice from the fridge.

“So…is it possible that Hannah may have said your real name at some point…maybe as she was singing, as in c’mon Charlie, sing with me.”?

Abby sat down and looked at Stella who had suddenly paused during one of her many mini baths to look at me.  It almost appeared as if  she was waiting to hear what I was going to say.

“I can’t wait to hear this story,” mumbled Stella.

“Why is Stella looking at you like that? sputtered Abby.  “Honest to God, Charlie, I swear that cat understands everything we say.”

I ignored her comment.

“Are you  actually expecting me to remember if Hannah used my real name last night?” I answered sarcastically.

“I was flat-out drunk and that’s being charitable.  Of course she could have used my real name.  Hell, I could have used my real name.”  I reached over and scratched  Stella under her chin.

“Good answer.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

I took a large bite of my second caramel roll, put it down and then…not thinking… pushed the plate with the half-eaten roll on it in Stella’s direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Stella doing a super, slow-motion, low crawl toward the abandoned roll, her tongue hanging out in wild anticipation.

“Oh, no you don’t,” I said and moved the plate out of her reach.

“Foiled!” Stella muttered…and then used her dangling tongue to quickly smooth some errant hairs on her front paws.   With her tail twitching in annoyance, she returned to look out the window.

“You know, Abby,” I said.  “This whole cockamamie fake name thing was all your bright idea.”

“I know, I know,” agreed Abby.  “And I still think it’s a great plan…almost as good as my ‘fourth grade mob’ idea…”   Then she grinned from ear to ear.

I also grinned and patted her hand.

“Nothing will ever top the ‘mob incident’…that was pure genius.  You were brilliant.”

“I was, wasn’t I?” Abby agreed.  “And to think I was but a mere child.”

We both laughed at that never to be forgotten event in our lives.

“You should come out with us once in a while,” I said to Abby.  You don’t have to dance or anything.  You don’t even have to drink.”

“Just sit with Hannah and me.  It would be so much fun.  The band at Doyle’s is great.  Your name could be,” and I paused…thinking of some of my favorite names.

“Annabelle,” I said and slapped my hand on the table.  “I love that name.”

“Okay…that’s never going to happen…” Abby said firmly.  “However… you can remember that for my bachelorette party.  We can all go to Doyle’s and I’ll be Annabelle Jones!”

I sighed…thinking of Abby leaving and pushed that sad thought to the back of my brain…

“So…back to me and my problem.  How does someone know my real name, a name that I never use when I am out at the bars?”

“Do you think in addition to knowing my real name…whoever it is also knows I’m a reporter…and that I work for the Journal?”

Chapter Twenty-Five

Abby was silent.  This was a rare occurrence for her.  Then…

“Was there anyone at Doyle’s last night that you ever see at the other bars? ” Abby asked.

“You and Hannah go out every weekend and most Wednesday nights.  Do you always use the phony name/job bit?” she continued.

I answered quickly…”Always.”

Suddenly Abby slapped her hand down on the table.  “By Jove, I’ve got it,” she said….using just a terrible English accent.

“Maybe…maybe it was someone who works at the Journal with you or Hannah…but neither of you knew they were there last night.”   Abby said.

“You know…you could be right…that kind of makes sense. ”  I took another swallow of my now very tepid and therefore unappetizing coffee.

My head was starting to scream at me and I got up to get two aspirin.

Just as Abby had finished putting yet another piece of eclair on Stella’s plate, the front doorbell rang.

All of us just froze in place.  No one came to our house on the weekends…NO ONE.  Even Stella had paused…tongue again hanging out.

Both Abby and I said in unison.  “What the hell?”  I know we were both thinking the same thing…this has to be bad news.

Abby was way more appropriately dressed than I was.. so she went to see who was disturbing our little Saturday morning brunch.  I returned to my place at the table…headache momentarily forgotten.

“I wonder who it is?” whispered Stella.  Never one to miss any action,  she had moved over to be closer to me.

Stella was a very friendly cat. She always loved the few people who came to visit us…but this was Saturday morning on a frigid, cold day in Minnesota.  I think even she thought something wasn’t quite right.

“I don’t know.” I said quietly.   “Why are we whispering?”

I could hear Abby talking and then heard her say, “Hang on”.   She soon appeared back in the kitchen.  She had a puzzled look on her face.

“What’s up?” I asked…eager to have this mystery solved.

“I need a dollar for a tip.”  She opened up the cupboard over the sink and took down the old Apple cookie jar where we kept change and dollar bills.  It made tipping delivery people a snap.

“For what?” I asked.

“For.  A.  Tip.” Abby said evenly…and gave me a look of exasperation.  She then went back to the front door.

I looked at Stella.  “Well, that was rude.”

“You have a killer hangover.  Everything will seem rude today.” she said knowingly.

I heard Abby say ‘thank you’ and then heard her shut the door.  I could feel little trickles of cold air that had filtered back to the kitchen from the opened door.

She walked into the kitchen carrying a long, white, rectangular floral box.  It was heavily wrapped in clear plastic to protect it from the freezing cold.

The label on the box said “Flora’s Fresh Flowers”.  It was very skinny and looked like it could only hold a single flower.

“Who’s it for?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Abby said.  “There was no name on the delivery ticket.  Only an address.  This one.”

“Well, well,” said Stella.  “The plot thickens.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Abby put the package down on the kitchen table.  I got up and carried some of the dishes to the sink and got a scissor so we could open it up.

“I can’t see a card, can you?” I asked as I gently cut away the layers of protective cellophane.

“It would be just like Ralph to forget a card.  Oh well, he’ll probably call me later this morning and we can know for sure.”  Abby said confidently.  Then she reached up her arms and stretched her back.

“That’s very good for you,” said Stella…who watched every move that Abby made…thinking…I’m sure…that another morsel of food could be placed on her plate at any given moment.

“Did you hear that Charlie?” Abby exclaimed as she quickly brought her arms down to her sides.  “I swear to God she said good!”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Abby.  Stella is just a cat.  One I happen to talk for…on occasion.  You do know that, right?  Do you not see my lips moving?”

“Well, sure I do…but sometimes,” Abby said in a soft voice, “I forget…especially when she makes sounds…strange sounds.”

“I resent the phrase ‘just a cat’,” complained Stella…to no one in particular.

I had opened the box and finished unwrapping the soft white paper.   I gently pushed some white tissue to the side.

Lying inside the box was one, beautiful yellow rose…and a small white envelope.

Abby had peered over the wrappings and had also spotted the envelope.

“Oh look!!’ she said.  “There is a card,” and she started to reach for it.

But I was quicker and I grabbed it before she did.

“I got it.”  As I picked it up and turned it over I saw just one word written on the front of the envelope.    It said…”Charlie”

Abby…who had also read the card…sat down in her chair and took a bite from her eclair and said,  “Well…this is interesting.”

“I can’t believe it!” I cried.  “It’s for me!”

I looked over at Abby who was no longer so interested in the package and squinted my eyes suspiciously at her.

“Is this from you?  You know, to make me feel better?  Considering ‘the anniversary’ and all that?”

“Nope.  And if you don’t open that envelope pretty damn soon, I’m going to.”  And she made an attempt to grab it.  But I was too fast.

I moved away and sat down opposite her at the table, holding the card in my hands.

I was almost afraid to open it.  Could it be from Bobby?  Or maybe from Jake? I would be happy either way…really.   But neither knew my real name…or for sure…my address.

At least I didn’t think so.  After the incident last night, I wasn’t so sure of anything.

“Open it or I’m leaving.”  Stella hurried.  “I have to take a nap.”

Abby looked from Stella to me and then back to Stella.

“I’m with her…open it!” Abby ordered.

“All right, all right,” I said.  “Sometimes…anticipation can be fun…”

At this point…I didn’t really care what the card said or who it was from…as long as it didn’t say, “Charlie.  Hand this rose over to Abby.  She will be so surprised.  Thanks. Ralph..”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

I gently opened the flap and pulled out a white card.

It said, “Charlie.  I hope this makes you happy.  Seeing you always makes me happy.”

I immediately got tears in my eyes.  I took a deep breath and exhaled a little shakily.

I handed it over to Abby who was impatiently reaching for it.

“NOT SIGNED!!!  IT’S NOT SIGNED!!!.  Abby yelped as she read the card.

“That’s it.  I’m done.”  Stella stood up, stretched quickly and jumped down to the floor.  She headed off to the top of the living room sofa…to begin one of her many daily vigils of the front sidewalk.

“I can’t believe it’s not signed!  What torture!”  Abby disgustedly tossed the card back down on the table, got up and started to clear away the last of the dishes.

I looked at her with indignant shock.

YOU can’s believe it!”  I said.  “YOU can’t believe it…how do you think I feel?”

“For the first time in months I have something… maybe kind of swell…happening to me and…it’s a secret!”  I shook my head in utter exasperation.

But then I looked at that beautiful, delicate rose again.  I picked it up and inhaled the unmistakable scent that only a rose can produce.

I smiled and carefully laid it back in the box.

“Abby…do you know if there’s a smallish vase around…”  I turned toward the sink but Abby had gone.

I got up and walked over to the stove.  I reached up and opened a seldom used cupboard.

“I think this is where mom kept some vases…” I said to myself…since no one else was listening to me…

I rummaged around and behind some larger ones…there was a small bud vase.   It had little pink flowers on it that were kind of faded…but it was the smallest of the lot so it would have to do.

I took it down and checked for any cracks…finding none…I went over to the sink and filled the it with water.

“Why doesn’t he want me to know who he is?” I asked Abby…who had returned to the kitchen.

“Well…I hate to say this…but…maybe he’s a married guy and just wanted to do something nice for you…like maybe Jake?  He probably would have noticed how much you were hurting last night.”

Abby was speaking very carefully, not wanting to upset me too much by using the word “married” and “Jake” in the same sentence.

I carried the vase over to the table, put it down and carefully added the rose and the greenery that had come with it.  I gently touched a yellow petal.

“Or Bobby?”  I mused.  “He did seem to be paying more attention to me than usual last night…or at least I think so.”.

“I just hope it’s not from some creep who’s going to start stalking us!” 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Abby looked at me and then looked towards the living room.  Shaking her head, she said very calmly and without any emotion or even judgement in her voice, “I’m going to get dressed now…just like other normal people do on a Saturday morning.  And  I stress the word normal.”

She got up and left the kitchen without waiting for any more comments from me…or…from Stella.

After a few more minutes of “rose appreciation”, I carefully picked up the vase and headed towards my room.  I put the vase on my dresser where I could see it from my bed and then went to gather my furry, little friend for some mystery solving.

“C’mon kiddo,  we have to talk.”  I picked up a sleeping Stella from the top of the sofa and slung her over my shoulder despite a few protesting groans.

People watching from the top of the sofa was one of her favorite activities.  Naps were a close second.  Since there weren’t a lot of people to watch in the winter…she was getting in a lot of nap time.

“I have no clue, said Stella.  “You do know that I am really you, don’t you?  I mean when we talk?”

“Yes.  I’m not crazy…not yet anyway…I just need to talk out my thoughts and it helps if I can do that with you…me…you…whatever.”

I knew full well that Abby could hear me talking as I headed from the living room  down the hallway and grinned when I heard a loud, expletive loaded groan coming from her room.

“Quiet down in there.  We have to think.” said Stella in a very teeny yet somewhat loud voice.

And then Stella licked my neck…twice.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Complicated and drawn out conversations were not Stella’s cup of tea.

She tended to stare off into space if I talked too long…and in Stella’s world…too long was defined as one or two minutes.  A yawn often escaped.

“I wonder,” I said, as I scratched behind her ears, “if this beautiful rose is connected to the someone who said ‘good-by, Charlie’…or whatever…to me last night?”

“And…how did that someone know my real name?  We still haven’t figured out that mystery.”

“I should call Hannah and see if she remembers if anything out of he ordinary  happened last night.  Or…even better…maybe she even knows who shouted out my name.”

“She’s still sleeping, I bet,” said Stella.

I continued…

“…because I’m so sure this rose has something to do with last night…”

“Of course, she had been pretty busy with that cute cop that wandered in around midnight.  I vaguely remember he was pretty interested in her too.”

“You know she’s asleep.” persisted Stella.

“So you say.   I should call her anyway to see if she still  plans to go to that party tonight at that after-hours place.”

“I thought you were done going to those places…didn’t the cops raid one of them a couple of weeks ago?”

I ignored her comment…even though I knew it was correct.

I totally knew neither Hannah nor I should go to any after-hours clubs.   If they got raided while we were there, we could lose our jobs.  Hell… we would lose our jobs.

Sometimes it sucks to be young and have a really great job.  You have to be so responsible.

“You weren’t very responsible last night.” said Stella.

“I know.  I know.  That…was the last time…for sure.  I promise.”

“I’ll be keeping track.” said Stella.

I pulled her close and nuzzled the top of her little furry head.

What I really wanted to do tonight, was to just stay home with Stella.

I would curl up on the sofa…eat hot buttered and generously salted popcorn, followed by my favorite ice cream, Haagen-Dazs Belgium Chocolate…and…watch the ‘Gilmore Girls’.  Again.

“I love the ‘Gilmore Girls'” sighed Stella.

Chapter Thirty

Of course…bitter truth be told…I was also foolishly hoping that maybe tonight would be the night that Bobby would come over during the band’s break and talk to me.  He was so damn cute.  Picture Bradley Cooper with a guitar and a killer smile…

I had this stupid crush on him…it was so pathetic at my age… even though it did appear that he maybe had a girlfriend.  I’ll give that to Abby. 

There was this beautiful flight attendant from Delta…and yes…she often came into the club in her uniform…who was always sitting at one of the front tables with a couple of her girl friends…also decked out in their uniforms.  

Her name tag…pinned right on the shoulder of her oh so cute uniform…read “Tiff”.  Yeah…I’m sure that name was on her birth certificate…give me a break.

During his breaks, Bobby almost always went over and sat down with her and her friends.

But I thought that last night he was actually heading in my direction…until she raised her arm and signaled for him to bring her another drink and…so he did.

Some nerve.  He wasn’t a waiter, for Pete’s sake.  But before he had headed towards the bar he had turned towards me and had given me a super, dazzling smile…and a wink.

“Maybe he was trying to tell me something…like ‘I was going to come over to you but I have to do this to be polite…'” I pondered out loud.  Stella raised her head.

“Wow.  That was an amazing stretch…even for you.” Stella said.

I laid back against my propped up pillows and closed my eyes, trying ever so hard  to remember last night’s smile from Bobby.  He had been smiling at me, hadn’t he?

I.  Am.  Never drinking that much again.  Ever.

Suddenly a vivid memory flashed like a bolt of lightning through my brain.

A voice.  A man’s voice…

“You’re not driving tonight are you Charlie?”

And me, drunkenly oblivious to anyone but my own pitiful self, had waved a hand in the direction of the concerned voice and dismissed the question with what I had thought was a brilliant answer.

“Driving?  Not tonight, babe.  I’m flying home tonight….simply flying…”

And then…that was it…end of lightning bolt.  End of memory.

Chapter Thirty-One

Damnation!  Whose voice was that…and how the hell did he know my real name?

I reached over and grabbed my phone to call Hannah…but then I hesitated…it was kind of early.  She may not even be alone…she and that detective had been pretty cozy last night.

I’ll wait…maybe in an hour or so when I’m sure she’ll be up…and awake…and in an agreeable mood to talk..

Stella peeked her head out from under the covers.

“You look so cute under there.”  I said.  “I bet it’s really cozy.”

In the winter, Stella often burrowed under the covers on my bed, turned around  and then just poked her nose and ears out from underneath.

And…of course I have several photos on Instagram to show everyone just how darling she looked…in case you were wondering…

I started to move the covers so I could slide in next to Stella.  I kicked off my fuzzy slippers and carefully crawled in.

“Hey!  Don’t squish me!” said Stella whose yellow eyes flashed open but then  immediately closed again.

Before my head hit the pillow, I looked one more time at that beautiful yellow rose.

To think that someone…someone I didn’t even know…cared enough about me to let me know that they were thinking about me…and…even worried about me.

To my complete surprise, tears welled in my eyes…and  I felt the deepest loneliness than I had felt since mom had died.

“Me.  You have me, you know.” said Stella.

“Indeed.  Oh, indeed.” I said and rolled over and meant to give some careful thought to all that was going on or not going on in my life.  But then Stella snuggled a little closer and  I fell asleep before one little thought could even appear.

Chapter Thirty-Two

LATER THAT NIGHT…

I was leaving Doyle’s a good twenty minutes after closing.

Everyone else had cleared out.  I had sent Hannah on her way with her new boyfriend, reassuring her that I was right behind them.  The “new boyfriend” was that cute cop she had met last night.

He was new to the Minneapolis ‘cop shop’…neither Hannah nor I had seen him before….and he was drop dead good-looking.  Hannah was absolutely on fire about him.

She had talked of no one and nothing else all the way to Doyle’s…wondering if he would show up tonight like he had promised.

She had also told him that she would probably be singing with the band.  Oh.  My.

They had been inseparable since the minute we had walked in.

I never got a chance to ask her if she knew who had called out my name last night during my rather sketchy departure.

To be brutally honest…I was a little embarrassed to admit…even to Hannah…that I was drawing a blank about some of last night’s activities.  It’s pretty scary when you don’t remember…

Just as we were all getting up to leave, I realized that I did not have my favorite pen…the one that I always use to take notes.

I told Hannah and her “little detective”…to take off since I was sure I would find it shortly.

I searched my purse again…for the umpteenth time and was not looking forward to pawing thru the rubble on the floor but I knew that was my next mission.

Even the bright white lights they usually put on to hurry us drinkers out into the forgiving darkness…had now been replaced by the bar’s glowing, red security lights.

At most clubs, when the last note had been played, people quickly left in droves.

There were after-hours parties to go to and “romantic” hook-ups that needed completing.  But…I wasn’t going anywhere until I found that damn pen.

It was an old Peterson family tradition to give a 14 KT Gold Cross pen to your son or daughter at their high school graduation.

Even though my dad knew he wouldn’t be able to do this himself…he had died when I was seven…he had instructed my mom to to buy one and give it to me on the day I graduated from Hamilton High School.

I was not leaving Doyle’s without that pen.

As I was searching around underneath the nearby tables, I finally found it under a bunch of grubby napkins.  Gross…

When I stood up from the floor, I felt a little dizzy so I sat down in a nearby chair  and waited for my head to clear.

Chapter Thirty-Three

I had had only one whiskey sour tonight.  After last night’s drinking fiasco, I figured one drink was plenty.  But it had been a strong one.

When did I last eat?  I wondered to myself…breakfast had been sweet rolls and coffee…but I had had no lunch.

I had been abruptly woken up from my nap, hearing a text alert on my phone, announcing a press conference at the Minneapolis Court House.  I had had no time to eat…I barely had time to drive down there.

There had been a horrible drive-by shooting this past Tuesday and a little five year-old boy had been killed in the cross-fire between two local gangs.

The police had a suspect in custody and they had called a press conference.

I couldn’t miss this.  Day off or not, hangover or not, I had dragged my body down to the court house.

This one was my story to cover…but what I did miss was lunch.  Dinner had been a piece of cheese eaten on the way over to Hannah’s apartment.

What a life…the news never stops…and if you’re a reporter…neither do you.

I could hear the clean-up crew in Doyle’s kitchen so I knew I could go out the back door without setting off any alarms.  They all knew me and Hannah.  No one would be surprised to see me…or if they were surprised they surely wouldn’t care.

When you go to the same bar week after week…you pretty much get to know everyone who works there… and they get to know you…or at least…recognize you.

It was sad, right?  But since both Hannah and I covered the crime scene in Minneapolis, we felt we had a justifiable reason to have fun whenever an opportunity arose…and that was usually on the weekends at Doyle’s.

Doyle’s also had a great house band…so there was live music and liquor.  What could be better when you’re twenty-four and single…right?

Well…….what would have been better…was to have not seen Bobby…”potential love of my life”…and flight attendant Tiff sharing passionate kisses every time the band took a break tonight.  Boy, I had that one figured wrong…

Oh well…life goes on.  I was always so optimistic that I would meet someone.  You know…a really nice guy.  They had to go to bars too, didn’t they?  I was nice…I was here…

Maybe I was just kidding myself.  Maybe I should start going to church…join a book club…I liked to read…

I noticed the light was still on in Jake’s office…not that it mattered one damn bit to me anymore.

Something must have happened in the “Marlowe household” today…Jake was sporting a shiny, gold wedding band…with a diamond stuck on it for good measure.

He had been at the door tonight, checking ID’s and had greeted both Hannah and I when we came in.

He had given me a totally sheepish look when he noticed I had seen his ring.  I gave him a smile.  Hey, it’s who I am.

Hannah gave me a ‘look”…but did not say “I told you so…”    It’s nice to have good friends.

I looked around the club…waiting to feel normal.

Wow.  This place is really strange when it’s empty.  Where’s the magic now?

Chapter Thirty-Four

Feeling better, I stood up and shrugged into my coat.  Since I was so hot from crawling all over the floor, I didn’t think I needed to button up.  I could handle 20 below zero for a couple of minutes.  I was…after all…a hardy Minnesotan.

I reached into my pockets for my gloves and then realized that I had left them on the front seat of my car when I had paused to put on lipstick before Hannah and I went into Doyle’s.

“See you next week, Teddy.” one of the dishwasher guys hollered at me as I passed through the kitchen.  I waved and pushed open the back door.

A blast of frigid air hit me and I immediately went into the bent-over, “huddle” position…familiar to anyone who has ever lived thru blistering cold winters.

I walked quickly across the parking lot to where my car was parked to begin my long trek home.

There would be no eating at the Minnehaha Grill tonight.  No eggs.  No bacon…and definitely no fun without Hannah.  What a bummer.  Oh, well.  I was pretty tired anyway.  It had been a long day.

The lot behind Doyle’s was huge and tonight we had no choice but to park way out on the perimeter since we had been running late.

Hannah had taken forever to get dressed.  She wanted to make a good impression on the band…and on her new ‘cop friend’.

“Amateur Night, Charlie,” she had said to me…as I tried to hurry her along.  Hannah was so beautiful she could wear a brown sack and look perfect.

As I walked to my car, I looked down to search around in my purse for my keys when suddenly a strong hand from behind grabbed my wrist and twisted my arm up behind my back.

Another arm came around my other side and a hand clamped over my mouth so tight I couldn’t scream and my struggling  was useless.

As I looked up, two more men appeared before me.  One of them had on a Grinch ski mask and the other one was wearing just a plain, black ski mask.

They swayed from side to side in an unsteady manner.   They had obviously been drinking…a lot.

“You be good now,” said the Grinch.  He was the taller of the two.  They both reeked of alcohol as did the man holding me captive.

“Jus’ let go of that pursh,” he slurred.  “An’ we’ll be on our way.”

I didn’t like the look of the long-bladed knife he had in his right hand.

I quickly let my free hand open and my purse fell with a thud to the ground.

I winced.  It was my brand-new Kate Spade bag.

Chapter Thirty-five

Please, I silently prayed… let them just want the money.

But the man holding my arm did not release it.  He pushed it up even farther.  Was he trying to break my arm?  I tried to scream but only a muffled whimper came out.

The man in the Grinch mask walked over and picked up my purse, walked back and said something to his buddy that I couldn’t hear.

He looked back at me and then they both laughed…it sounded pure evil.  Now I was glad I couldn’t see their faces.

“Get her over behind those trees,” the taller one ordered.  And suddenly I felt my feet leave the ground.  My toes skimmed the rough pavement as the one holding me started to drag me to the darkest part of the lot.

I struggled to free myself but it was no use.  Every self-defense class maneuver I had ever learned flew out of my head.

I couldn’t believe this was happening to me!  My heart was pounding so fast, I thought I was going to pass out.

Then suddenly I heard another man’s voice.   It was deeper.  Older.  Coming from somewhere behind us.

“I think you boys are done here now.  I’ll take over.”

But no one let me go.  I was still being dragged.  Was this a friend of theirs?

“Oh I don’t think so man.  But we can share,” sneered the one who had his hand over my mouth.  It was getting hard now to even take a breath.

Footsteps behind me got louder but I wasn’t able to twist around to see who was talking.

“I don’t share,” he said quietly.  Now he was right behind us.  “Let her go.  Now.”

And then I heard the unmistakable cocking of a gun’s hammer.  A big gun.  I had been around policemen long enough these past couple of years to recognize that sound.

Whoever was holding me, let me go so fast my feet hit the ground and I stumbled and started to fall forward.  I could hear the footsteps of my assailants running away.

New hands quickly caught me and kept me from hitting the pavement.  But still terrified, I fought to get away.

Chapter Thirty-Six…The Final Chapter

“Charlie!  It’s okay.  I’m a police officer…I’m an undercover cop, MPD.  My name is Mike.  Mike Foster.”  The words were clear and simple and strong…meant to be calming.

His voice…it sounded so familiar…and then it slowly dawned on me.

It was the same voice as the one who had asked me last night if I was “driving home”.  I now remembered Hannah whispering in my ear…

“That Mike is sure a cutie.” Hannah had said, referring to Doyle’s cute , new bouncer as she had guided ‘my drunken self’ out the door.

I slowly turned around and looked up.  It was him.  My mind raced… no wonder he was with all those cops at the court house.  Of course.  He must have seen me and didn’t want to take a chance on blowing his cover.

“Mike…” I murmured under my breath.  “Right…”

He let me stand free for a moment as he put his gun away.  I swayed a little and he grabbed my elbow to steady me.

“Hey, take it easy.” he said softly.

Quiet tears of relief started to stream down my cheeks and I started to shake.  Shock and the freezing cold began taking their toll on me.

Mike pulled me a little nearer and tried to close up my coat, saying soft, comforting words as he fumbled with the buttons.

Then he stopped and took his hands and lifted my face so he could look me in the eyes…

“Charlie.  It’s all over.  You’re safe now.”  He spoke very slowly, carefully choosing his words… to be sure I understood.

But I was so cold.  I couldn’t stop shivering and I couldn’t stop crying.  I just stood there unable to speak or move.

Graphic images I had seen too many times from crime scenes I’d covered the last couple of years were flashing thru my mind.

I knew just how bad this could have been.

“So cold…” I managed to whisper.

Mike gently pulled me next to him.  His jacket was open and he wrapped his arms and his jacket around me.  I could hear sirens in the distance.

“Thank God I was still here,” he said, his voice ragged with emotion.

I sighed and sank into the safety and warmth of his body.

After a few minutes, my tears stopped and I was shaking less.  But I didn’t want to leave the warmth of Mike’s arms.  And he didn’t appear to be in any hurry to let me go.

I pulled back just a little, looked up and asked, “The rose?”

It was the first time I had ever seen Mike Foster smile.  He had a great smile.

  “The End”